Inuit knowledge helps science learn something new about Arctic weather

To a conversation with CIRES researchers Betsy Weatherhead, Shari Gearheard, and Roger Barry. 4:08

Inuit fishermen on the water

Inuit forecasters equipped with generations of environmental knowledge are helping scientists understand changes in Arctic weather. Download hi-res version here. Must credit Shari Gearheard, NSIDC

An Inuk living in the Canadian Arctic looks to the sky and using skills passed down through generations can tell by the way the wind scatters a cloud, whether a storm is on the horizon or if it’s safe to go on a hunt. Thousands of miles away in a lab tucked in the Rocky Mountains, scientists take data measurements and use computer models to predict weather. They are two practices serving the same purpose, living in separate worlds.

But in the past twenty years, something’s run amok with Inuit forecasting. Old weather signals don’t mean what they used to. The cloud that scatters could signal a storm that comes in an hour, instead of a day. And now a melding of indigenous environmental knowledge with modern science is helping researchers learn something new about what’s happening to the Arctic climate.

“It’s interesting how the western approach in my mind is often trying to understand things without necessarily experiencing them,” said Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research scientist with University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. “With the Inuit, it’s much more of an experiential issue, and I think that fundamental difference brings a completely different emphasis both in defining what the important scientific questions are, and discerning how to address them.”

Researchers had heard reports of unpredictable weather coming in from Arctic communities. But their stories didn’t seem to match up with the numbers. By scientific measurement, weather around the world appeared to be growing more persistent with less variation. The disparity left scientists scratching their heads.

“I had heard about this problem from other environmental statisticians for a number of years that the Inuit were all saying the similar kind of story,” said Weatherhead, who also works closely with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. “But the Inuit used a different language than what we statisticians used, and none of us could really figure out what matched up with their observations.”

That’s where Shari Gearheard, a scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center, also part of CIRES, comes in. Gearheard lives in Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada, an Inuit community on eastern Baffin Island, and for the past ten years has been working with Inuit hunters and elders to document their knowledge of the environment and environmental change.

Weather carries with it a special importance in these Arctic environments, where a reliable forecast can mean the difference between life and death. There are those in the Inuit community who possess the skills to predict the weather, but that’s a knowledge that is dying off as both the culture and climate change. “The impacts of that are a loss of confidence in those forecasters, and then not wanting to give incorrect forecasts. Forecasters don’t want to send somebody out to go hunting if they’re going to be unsafe and be in poor weather conditions,” said Gearheard.

Gearheard meticulously collects the stories told to her by the Inuit and makes systematic records of indigenous environmental knowledge. Through this, patterns begin to emerge.

Of special importance were changes experienced by Inuit during the spring, a time of transition for many environmental processes. “In fact in a lot of places, the name of the season is named after a particular process,” said Gearheard. “Inuit are not seeing that anymore, which was an indicator to them that something had changed.”

Gearheard’s records created a resolution of detail for Arctic weather observation that, by bringing the two studies together, gave Weatherhead the breakthrough she needed to bridge indigenous with scientific knowledge. “What was incredibly helpful was Shari’s detailed description of what they were experiencing, what sort of timescales,” said Weatherhead. “And, so that just really allowed us to start focusing in our statistical tests and try to find exactly what matched their observations.”

Statistical analysis of day-to-day temperatures at Baker Lake, Nunavut, showed that in May to June, the persistence of temperature has recently declined, matching Inuit reports of greater unpredictability for that season. “It’s worth saying people hadn’t previously looked at persistence in this way,” said CIRES fellow Roger Barry, also Director of the World Data Center for Glaciology at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

What they found was a scientific story more inline with what people were witnessing on the ground. Weather along the Arctic latitudes was behaving more unpredictably than in other parts of the world. “That’s an incredibly important parameter to care about, incredibly important,” said Weatherhead. “The way I try to describe it to some people, if we get an inch of rain out at my house in the month of July, I don’t need to turn on the sprinklers. But if we get an inch of rain on July 1, and no rain after that, my lawn is dead.”

“Ecosystems have evolved under a certain type of pattern. So if that is changing, that could be just as important as a small increase in temperature or some of the other changes we’re talking about,” Weatherhead continued.

The study helps refine and test climate models, while also providing these models with a new category of information to consider. And Gearheard’s work with the Inuit is demonstrating the value of indigenous environmental knowledge to modern climate science.

“When we first started talking about this, indigenous knowledge didn’t have the place it does now in research,” Gearheard added. “It’s growing. People are becoming more familiar with it, more respectful of it.”

Weatherhead and Gearheard are intrigued by the insights incorporating indigenous knowledge have provided climate studies, but they don’t want to stop there. This study has sparked an interest in the type of environmental knowledge all sorts of communities could provide climate science from ranchers and farmers to indigenous groups. “That’s when exciting stuff happens,” said Gearheard, “when you treat these perspectives as different forms of evidence or knowledge and see where that takes you.”

The study appears online, April 7, 2010, in the journal Global Environmental Change. The National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada provided funding for the study.

Elizabeth Weatherhead 303-497-6653
Roger Barry 303-492-5488
Morgan Heim CIRES 303-492-6289
Katherine Leitzell NSIDC communications 303-492-7262